‘Life is Strange: Before the Storm’ is a rare occurrence — a game built around a relatable young woman

(Courtesy of Square Enix)
(Courtesy of Square Enix) By Christopher Byrd January 5

Life is Strange: Before the Storm Developed by: Deck Nine Published by: Square Enix Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox one

I’ve long believed that over time the emotional reach of video games would increase, just as it did from the inception of film to Expressionism, Neorealism, and beyond. When I think of games that have borne out that premise, “Life is Strange,” (2015) shines notably. Both a critical and a commercial success, it proved there was a mainstream audience for a female-centric game about friendship, family, and relationships set against the background of a small town. Life in fictional Arcadia Bay, Oregon reflected some of the more topical features of contemporary American society ranging from income inequality, to widespread substance abuse, to bullying, to the psychological effects of war on a veteran. It was a game that made grown folks cry.

When it was first announced that the trailblazing coming-of-age-game would be receiving a prequel, the news was met with a wave of skepticism from many corners of the Internet. For one thing, “Before the Storm” was being undertaken by a different developer, the Colorado-based Deck Nine, instead of the Paris-based Dontnod Entertainment. Moreover, because of a Screen Actors Guild strike, the game’s central character Chloe Price, so vividly brought to life by Ashly Burch in the original, was handed off to another voice actress Rhianna DeVries. There were also worries about gameplay. In the first game, players assumed the role of Maxine Caulfield, a teenager who discovers she has the ability to rewind time. Maxine is not a part of “Before the Storm” and Chloe is an ordinary teenager so some wondered how the new game would make due without the supernatural gameplay element. Yet another worry was that the story would be anticlimactic in lieu of the events in the first game.

(Courtesy of Square Enix)

In the face of such head winds, it’s impressive how well the new game turned out. DeVries does an excellent job voicing the young Chloe who is by turns endearing, exasperating, knowing, clueless, cold, and empathetic. DeVries handles these different shades of Chloe’s personality with skill. Though “Before the Storm” doesn’t quite match the emotional shocks of the original game, it tells its story with conviction and a sense of purpose. Its fundamental narrative underscores the fact that no matter how close we are to other people, we harbor secrets the likes of which others can scarcely fathom.

In the original “Life is Strange,” Maxine Caulfield is intrigued and a little jealous of Rachel Amber, a star student from her high school who has gone missing. Even though Max never knew her (Max had only recently returned to Arcadia Bay from Seattle) she is made aware of Rachel in various ways including the missing person posters she comes across and the awed recollections she hears from those who knew her, like Max’s childhood friend Chloe. By one measure Rachel is a symbol of the strained relationship between Max and Chloe — Chloe grew close to Rachel after Max had moved to Seattle. For her part, Max is sharply aware that Rachel and Chloe shared a special relationship that was uniquely theirs and this knowledge makes her feel somewhat like an outsider in Chloe’s life. Eager to make things right between them, Max labors zealously to help Chloe find out what happened to Rachel.

As a prequel, “Before the Storm” cleverly positions itself as the story that couldn’t be told in first game because it touched too many raw nerves. The plot is built on circumstances that could lead one to lie or hide the truth from one’s nearest and dearest. My choices brought me to an ending that was a tapestry of shame, hope, transformation, and desolation, which is to say it hit the right notes for a Life is Strange ending.

(Courtesy of Square Enix)

Without the first game’s signature rewind-time mechanic, this one is reliant upon the player being interested in their surroundings and invested in choosing different dialogue options. Chloe’s special ability is “Back Talk” wherein you try to gain the upper hand in a heated conversation by selecting the perfect riposte. Some dialogue choices will change the direction of the story but many of Chloe’s crucial decisions are flagged in such a way that alarm bells might as well be going off. I think the narrative would have been better served if pivotal moments weren’t signposted . . . you know, in the interest of subtly and all that.

Since the gameplay consists mostly of investigating Chloe’s environment and choosing what to say, it is vital the player feel a connection to the setting. A strong soundtrack helps push the connection as do interesting characters and good art direction.

As someone who has played too many gun toting dudes, I’m delighted to see a game built around a dynamic young woman who can get a junkyard truck running, act as an emergency stand-in for Ariel in the “Tempest,” and solve a mystery, all while growing up. I look forward to seeing where the series goes next.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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